Reviews Reviewed: Philip Marchand vs. Catherine Bush

Of The Globe and Mail Books section Jay said, “I don’t read it, but I like the idea of it.” I too love the idea of it, but most of its fiction reviews are unreadable, which leads me to ask why this section of the paper is simply a flyer, a glorified ‘advertorial’ or skinny ‘magalog.’ Why isn’t it a place where the discussion of a work’s worth is interesting and engaging? I imagine the reason comes from somewhere in the economic sphere, the great leveller of intellectual ambition. How else would the section appeal to both serious readers and those who are excited by yet another book on the Franklin Expedition or the latest bunch of history books whose release fits nicely with the coming of a similarly-themed blockbuster?

Editorial and marketing interests aside, there’s also the skill of the reviewers. This past weekend’s Globe and Sunday Toronto Star have given us a nice test-case to examine how a review succeeds or fails. Each Books section contains a review of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. One review is good, and the other is terrible. My hope is that by looking at these pieces closely, the editors and writers at the Globe may gain some insight into the art of reviewing fiction.

One word of warning to sensitive book-reading Canadians: this piece you are reading will say critical things about one of our darling authors. This piece is not meant to be ‘mean’ or to exhibit ‘snark’. These criticisms are not an attack on the author’s skills as a fiction writer, as a Canadian citizen or as an ox. They also do not say anything about her skill as a driver or her demeanour at the book-signing table after a reading at Harbour Front. I’m looking at her abilities as a reviewer. That’s it.

For those international readers of this web site, I apologise for the previous paragraph. Enthusiasts of Canadian fiction, most of whom are writers or friends of writers, can be touchy.

Philip Marchand wrote his review for the Star and Catherine Bush wrote hers for the Globe. Both started their pieces very strongly: Marchand by writing how Robinson’s book provides a window into the rather perplexing Southern US and Bush by touching on the impact of Robinson’s first book and the odd 23-year gap between her second and current work. However, after three paragraphs, a readers eyes will start to blur over Bush’s words. Her review just gets boring.

The bulk of Bush’s review is plot synopsis for the sake of plot synopsis. Any hint of critical engagement with Robinson’s work is brought out in stock ‘reviewer’ phrases like “curious inversion,” “profound subtlety” and “vividly brought to life.” (Thankfully, the phrase “deceptively simple” is absent.) The review is devoid of any examples of Robinson’s writing. Bush seems to forget that in a review, like in a novel or newspaper article, the reader’s attention is something earned and not given.

Marchand, ever conscious of the reader’s attention, executes a bit of a ‘bait-and-switch’ in his article. At the beginning he entices the reader with the idea of “book as window into the Southern soul” only to renege, albeit tactfully, later on. His out some with the statement that the main character of the novel “doesn’t have to wrestle with the questions of gay marriage, abortion rights and stem cell research.” The book is, after all, set in 1955. The ploy, though, works and can be forgiven because Marchand delivers in other areas. He presents the reader with the pedigree of Gilead as he compares it with Georges Bernanos The Diary of a Country Priest. Marchand’s exploration of plot and character are in the service of illustrating the ideas that the book gives rise to. The review also has examples of Robinson’s writing, which, I would think, is what any reader wants to see.

Now that both reviews have a passed briefly under the microscope, I hope that current and budding reviewers have some lessons that they can take with them. Again, I hope the strong criticism laid upon Bush’s piece was not too much for her admirers and the cause of Canadian letters. With all of us now looking forward to future Books sections, I pronounce this review of reviews over.

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